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Stressing About Kids’ Survival Improves Memory

When people imagine high stress survival scenarios with their children involved, their memories are significantly sharper, a new study suggest.

Parents might be tempted to believe that their brain is slowly succumbing to the pressures of responsibility, but the reality is that thinking about raising kids could sharpen your memory.. The first of its kind study, published in Journal of Experimental Psychology, research demonstrate that people can improve their recall by imagining caring for children in primitive survival scenarios. So if your memory sucks, it’s not because you’re thinking too much about that time you caught a toddler falling off a couch. It’s because you’re tired.

“Educated people recognize the influence of genes on our anatomy and physiology, including our nervous system,” Ralph Miller, study coauthor and Professor of Psychology Binghamton University, told Fatherly. “We recognize the influence of our nervous system on our mind. But we rarely connect these two truths to appreciate that our genes strongly influence how we think and what we remember.”

While there’s plenty of data confirming that brain functions are influenced by evolutionary history and natural selection, very little research about how genes influence how people remember. However, a 2007 study was the first to shed light on this “survival-processing effect,” when they tested participants’ ability to recall words while imagining themselves stranded in a grasslands environment. Results indicated that the more people thought of survival scenarios in an ancestral setting, the better they were at recalling a set of previously reviewed and ranked by participants in terms of their relevance for survival. Several other studies attempted to duplicate these findings by having people imagine other threatening and high-stress environments and demonstrated that thinking about a combination if survival scenarios and family seems to boost memory and recall the most.

The current study asked 200 undergraduate students to imagine themselves in the ancient grasslands of Africa and rank the relevance of 35 concrete nouns (i.e.  stone, deer, and water). Then they were instructed to picture several scenarios about survival, raising children, finding mates, along with less evolutionary significant activities such as building monuments. Miller and his team then surprised participants by asking them to recall as many words as possible. Results showed that people were able to remember more words when they imagined survival scenarios, and this survival-processing advantage was the most pronounced when they thought about raising kids in these survival scenarios. Interestingly, there was no such effect in regards to choosing mates in survival scenarios. Sorry, partners.

“We had initially expected a benefit from the mate-seeking scenarios as well as the child rearing scenarios,” Miller says, noting that there are limits to how much he can generalize about the findings without further research. “The study should be replicated with pictures rather than printed words, and with other scenarios.”

Until that happens, Miller does not have any practical recommendations for forgetful parents. Instead, the purpose of the study is to emphasize that humans are strongly influenced by natural selection, and the way we think and remember is a part of that.

“Awareness of this is not to suggest that genes are destiny because genes and experience work together to make us what we are today,” Miller says.

Unfortunately, it’s improving your memory is not as simple as imagining hunting and gathering for your brood. Imagining your kid in survival scenarios won’t help you remember where you put your keys, but it will make you very hard to be around. So don’t do that. In the end, this is less of a memory hack and more of an evolutionary excuse for forgetting.